Mobile Media: the Future is Now

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While creating the video and preparing it for mobile streaming may be straightforward, there are challenges for creating content and content-focused applications for mobile streaming.

Emblaze's Eliraz points out that developing applications for PCs with standard operating systems is relatively straightforward. "PCs are pretty much the same. Variations exist, but as a developer you generally know what to expect. But, when you're developing applications or architectures for a mobile phone, there are a wide variety of networks and phone operating systems and you have to be ready for anything."

The Symbian operating system used in the Nokia Communicator, as well as other internationally available phones from Nokia and Sony Ericsson, is a big help according to Eliraz, because it offers consistency. However, there are many other proprietary systems phone makers use and some see an advantage to keeping it that way.

Microsoft, for example, would clearly love to see the Pocket PC version of Windows migrate into phones. Phone makers, on the other hand, may be leery of the commodity status of much Windows computer hardware and prefer to maintain some level of exclusivity. While open platforms are good for application developers, feature differentiation between phone makers and within their own products lines, may be better for business. Incorporating a Flash player may serve both interests.

Competing infrastructure standards supported by different carriers also complicate system design and require phone makers to develop products effectively for each carrier. There are actually three technologies—GMS, GPRM, and CDMA— for moving wireless data and it's rare that you'll find a phone that supports all three. That's why a Verizon phone, for example, is unlikely to work if you switch to AT&T wireless: they speak different languages. Fortunately, as ominous as a format war may sound, these parallel standards are unlikely to deter consumers or content holders. Indeed, the success of wireless phones today confirms that a carrier's networking choices are little more than feature bullets on marketing brochures to most users.

And, that's as it should be, according to Ericsson spokesperson, Michelle French. "It's an issue for us, the networking companies, and carriers to worry about. As long as carriers can deliver a good and reliable package of services and features, the consumers shouldn't need to worry too much about the technology behind it."

That's true even as carriers migrate to more robust and faster third-generation, or "3G", infrastructures. All three technologies have migration paths to 3G, although it appears that GMS and GPRM will merge over time. Still, CDMA and GMS/GPRM will likely be around for some time, acknowledges French. "The more important piece is that each technology is moving from circuit-switching technology to a more network-efficient, packet-switching, IP-based technology."

Bandwidth Scramble
While wireless media specialists generally concede that bandwidths probably need to increase in this country if they're to support mainstream media streaming applications, it is not as much as you might think and the process is already underway. Current second-generation, or 2G, bandwidths, barely approach rates comparable with early 14.4 and 28.8 modems, yet each of the major North American carriers has been in trials of higher bandwidth 2.5G and 3G infrastructures for awhile. Full-scale domestic build-out is still some time away in the USA, but there's clear movement afoot.

Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest wireless carrier, has just launched "Express Network," a service expected to deliver 40-60Kbits/sec of data. The service, available only in some areas, is initially targeting mobile professionals craving constant Internet connectivity from notebook computers and PDAs. Yet, Verizon has a clear eye toward future image-capable phones. Sprint PCS expects to launch competitive services before the end of the summer, with AT&T wireless joining the higher-speed chase before year's end. Cingular may take a little longer, primarily because its nationwide network was assembled through acquisition with a range of service levels in place.

Those advancements are admittedly two to three years behind Europe and Japan and shy of full 3G infrastructures of the future, which would yield connection speeds in the DSL/Cable modem range. Still, these "Express" service bandwidths are enough to begin targeted audio, animation, and even video to consumer devices, assuming it's done right. Indeed, mobile streaming companies, like Emblaze, Packet Video, and RealNetworks, have really become video networking companies.

Ziv Eliraz says that where video compression was once a main concern, infrastructure is the mission now. "It's probably MPEG-4, but it doesn't have to be. Our job is optimizing technology for wireless, from designing ASICs to go inside phones to video servers that can be integrated into larger wireless networks." In a sense, being the IT professionals that help the international carriers, the large phone makers, and the content partners figure out how to create viable mobile streaming solution is a long journey for a small company like Emblaze that began with a compression format for sending video emails. The same is true for Packet Video, which started with clever thinking about error correction for video streams or RealNetworks, the virtual default brand name for streaming video compression. But, success with mobile streaming probably will mean boldly going into new space and will require a unique blend of relative aliens working together.

Sidebar: WIFi: What's in It for I
If you've traveled through some of the nation's larger airports recently, especially in hi-tech parts of the country, you may have seen or even used a wireless LAN that allows you to connect to the Internet, check email, or log on to a home office server. WiFi (Wireless Fidelity, formally 802.11b) is a technology that creates short-range hot spots from a receiver, generally in a PC card for a notebook computer or PDA, to a wireless hub at very fast bitrates. To carriers spending millions to build out networks for future 3G service, WiFi may feel like a major turf challenge. But, is there really competition here?

When a WiFi hub is connected directly to a T1 line or above, it can deliver high-speed service comparable to a wired LAN in an up-to-date office, potentially several times faster than even full 3G networks. The caveat is that the connection only extends a few hundred feet. That's fine if you're sitting in an airport, hotel room, or a Starbucks coffee shop, but not if you're a mobile phone user driving down the road. A few companies, like MobileStar (recently acquired by VoiceStream) and Boingo, are in the early stages of creating broader coverage by allowing users to find and hop between local WiFi nodes. That's a lot more nodes than the typical network of cellular towers, but not a completely different model from older cellular roaming arrangements between regional companies or, for that matter, the early Internet.

Ultimately, WiFi hot spots are likely to serve mobile computing better than G3 connections because they're faster. However, with the acquisition of MobileStar by VoiceStream, a 3G-focused company, it may be that the two technologies eventually work together with users finding the path of least resistance to the necessary bandwidth.

Sidebar: Flashy Phones in Your Future
Simply put, there's no more successful rich media format on the Web than Macromedia's Flash. A study by NPD claims that over 98% of Internet-capable computers can view Flash content without downloading or installing anything. That's far higher than any other streaming video and audio player, including those for QuickTime, Real, and Windows Media. Streaming video and audio may have more sizzle, but when it comes to delivering very efficient non-static media over low bandwidths, the answer is often Flash.

Chances are, you're watching Flash in so many of those annoying moving banner ads, pop-up windows, or random motion graphics that dance across a browser screen. But, it's also the format used to create entire interactive Web sites for companies like Sony Classical, 7-Up, and Ford. Simplistically, Flash is an animation creation tool with strength in its ability to synchronize graphical, text, audio, and video elements in timed sequences or in response to user mouse clicks or other input.

The Flash player also has a very small footprint, making it attractive to small device makers and Nokia has already incorporated the Flash player into its Communicator with other device makers expected to follow. It's that breadth between a powerful development environment and a tiny player application that ought to make content developers take notice. While future cellular phones are likely to have very different operating systems, incorporating a Flash Player opens devices up to more than 1.3 million Flash developers to create custom user interfaces, custom applications, and custom content. Some applications already available to wireless PDA users include the subway maps of New York City and zoomable city maps for tourists, plus more capricious individualistic applications like custom ring tone creation and a variety of games.

Companies Mentioned in This Article
Packet Video:
Portable Internet, Inc.:
Sprint: http://
Sony Ericsson:
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